Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Claude Debussy: Le Martyre de saint Sébastien (Symphonic Fragments)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 35
Unsuk Chin: Rocaná (US Première)
Alexander Scriabin: Poem of Ecstacy
Joshua Bell (Violin), Paul Merkelo (Trumpet)
Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Kent Nagano (Conductor, Artistic Director)
Kent Nagano’s first American performance with his orchestra was nothing could be described only in the most extravagant terms. Yes, he presented a program which was challenging, rare, consistently interesting. And yes, his soloist, Joshua Bell played the only old warhorse with more than his usual radiance.
But most exciting of all, Nagano is the one conductor—to paraphrase Shakespeare, “the Onlie True Begetter”—of this most singular orchestra.
When I last visited Montreal, Charles Dutoit had made a sudden departure, leaving an ensemble which had reached international status, mainly with his performances of French music. But nobody knew who could replace him. It had to be a conductor that would take up very colorful instrumentalists to new plateaus, yet had to be cognizant of the Gallic heritage not only of Montreal, but of its Swiss progenitor. Getting Kent Nagano then was out of the question, so it seemed.
As Artistic Director, his first Manhattan concert showed intense imagination. As conductor, his execution was simply stunning.
Nagano started with the only French work, Debussy’s Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian , but to most, it was entirely new. The four symphonic fragments were not only orchestrated with fragile delicacy, but the harmonies verge constantly on the Medieval. Under Nagano’s direction, the opening with its English horn solo filigree-rich orchestra could have been a Chartres stained-glass window. The other fragments (the whole oratorio-opera is almost never played) had that same transport of joy.
Tchaikovsky’s Concerto is hardly a rarity, but Joshua Bell—who seems to be the soloist on half the concerts in New York—was lyrical, sweet, and tore down those technical barriers while hardly breaking a sweat. His encore by John Corigliano showed the same genius.
The second half presented two works which were written exactly a century apart—yet were extremely similar. The American première of Rocaná (Sanskrit for “Room of Light”) by Korean-born Unsuk Chin, was an orchestral “translation” of light beam behavior. In her words, “their distortion, refraction, reflections and undulations” Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstacy was composed six years before Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, so he would not have known this minutiae of light rays, waves and electrons. But Scriabin certainly did know the electronic waves of the mind, he understood the relations between color and tone, and he certainly had his own theories about the universe.
Chin’s work was not only a perfect vehicle for this orchestra, but was amazing in itself. The work took dozens of intervallic relations, repeating them, transforming them, coalescing and opposing them within the orchestra quite ingeniously. Each separate chord was squeezed in and out in volume, daring from one side of the orchestra to the other. It was constantly fascinating but never became a tour de force in itself.
Nagano has already premiered Chin’s opera Alice in Wonderland, and oh, New Yorkers should be given a chance to hear it.
The Scriabin was played with all the force—and brilliant trumpet solo by Paul Merkelo—that the Montreal orchestra could summon up. And that was a lot. It was a perfect finishing vehicle for Kent Nagano, though the sounds were resounding long after leaving Carnegie Hall.